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If there is one thing that I can make reliably and excellently, it’s lemon meringue pie. This is my culinary claim to fame, and I’ve been waiting for this day to come up in the food calendar for most of the year. And while there is some small part of my mind that thinks I should protect my secret, I’m going to ssh that brain-bit and share my recipe with you. Warning – this is not the fastest pie to make in the world…there are many less complicated. But there aren’t any that taste better. So put in the time, you’ll be happy you did. The recipe that follows makes one 9″ pie plate.
First, some tips:
+read this all the way through – you can’t really stop once you’ve started as you need to put the hot filling in the warm pie shell, and have them still be hot when the meringue is made… in other words, get as organized as possible. Also helps to do things like juice and zest the lemons, separate the eggs, measure stuff out, etc before hand.
+Seems to cook better in pyrex for some reason, but a metal pie pan will do if you don’t have the glass.
+For this entire recipe, much depends on fresh ingredients. The eggs can’t be more than a couple days old, the lemons should be the nicest you can find (and since you’re using the peel, organic), fresh spices, etc.
+It usually takes me 4 -6 lemons to make this recipe, but you may want to get a couple extra, b/c running short would suck.
+ be REALLY careful not to get any egg yolk in the egg whites when you are separating them. Yolk will ruin the meringue (however a little egg whites in the yolks won’t hurt the filling). Also, it’s really important that there is no oil on the bowl, beaters, etc that you will use to make the meringue.
-the egg whites have to be at room temperature. gotta plan ahead!
#1 – make the crust
preheat oven to 350.
mix with a fork until everything is moistened (will look a little crumby, but not chunky): 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs, 6 tbsp melted butter, 1/4 c white sugar, 1/4 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg (<–this is one of my secrets!)
Spread the mix evenly in the pie pan. use your fingers, or I like the bottom of a juice glass, to press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of the pan until it’s pretty firm. Bake for 10-15 min, until lightly browned.
#2 – make filling
turn the oven down to 325, and move the rack to the top third of the oven. If you haven’t done so already, prep materials in part three, below, before making this filling
whisk in a med saucepan:
1 1/4 c white sugar
1/3 c cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
whisk in, blending well:
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 c strained lemon juice (fresh squeezed from the lemons– pulp is OK, seeds are not))
4 teaspoons lemon zest
Whisk in until no yellow streaks remain
4 large egg YOLKS (not the whole eggs!) (save the whites for the top)
2 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into little chunks
Put this pot on the stove, and STIR CONSTANTLY (scraping the bottom), with a wooden spoon or rubber/silicon spatula, while bringing to a simmer over medium heat. Once simmering, cook for 1 minute. The filling will be very thick. remove from heat, and if there are any lumpy bits (which happens if you overcook it slightly) whisk the mixture vigorously for 20-30 seconds to make it smooth again.
Pour into the pie crust and immediately press a sheet of saran-wrap directly onto the surface of the pie. You’re trying to stop it from steaming, and hold as much heat as possible while you whip the egg whites. When you put the meringue topping on, the heat from the filling will cook the meringue from the bottom and the oven will cook it from the top.
#3 – meringue!
Prep: measure these ingredients out BEFORE making the filling:
1/4tsp cream of tartar
1/2 c berry sugar (finer than regular sugar)
1/2 tsp vanilla
Once the filling is made and is under the saran:
In a clean, grease free metal or glass bowl beat 4 large egg whites (at room temperature) on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, and continue beating until soft but definite peaks form. Very gradually ( one tablespoon at a time) beat in the sugar. Once all the sugar has been added, begin to beat on high speed until the peaks are stiff and glossy. Beat in the vanilla.
Immediately peel back the saran off the pie filling, and drop the meringue by the large spoonful onto the pie, going around the outside edge of the pie first to anchor the meringue to the pie-crust. make fun swirls and loops.
Immediately bake for 20 min, until the meringue is a nice light brown. Let cook completely on a rack – tastes best a room temperature.
Eat, drink and make merry.
The first time I tasted Coquilles St. Jacques was in the fanciest restaurant in my small northern BC hometown. It was my first parent-sanctioned date and it was a very big deal for the boy who emptied his wallet to buy us a truly grown-up meal. The restaurant is still a great place for a celebratory dinner, the boy is still a good friend and Coquilles St. Jacques is still a personal favourite.
Sadly, Coquille is another dish on a long list of outdated and cliché menu items, once considered haute cuisine, now just a pedestrian relic. But, like so many of these unfairly maligned foods, it is less about the taste than about over-exposure. It’s a lot like that song that you heard on the radio every two hours one summer that was then relegated to the long-weekend classics play list – you still enjoy it when you here it, you just don’t want to hear it every day. I’m happy to play that old song today… though not the original. Instead I’m going to play a modern cover.
Every time I’ve had Coquilles St. Jacques in a restaurant, and it’s been a goodly long time, it has been small scallops swimming in cream sauce, covered with mashed potatoes and served in a scallop shell. I’ve had a few variations – one with shrimp, another with mushrooms, each with varying quantities of shallots and garlic, but for the most part they have never strayed too far from the theme. This photo from the Impromptu Gourmet website is exactly as I remember that first Coquille.
The funny thing is that Coquilles St. Jacques is generally understood as a specific preparation for scallops but it is actually a medieval name for the scallops themselves. The scallop was the symbol of the Order of Saint James during the crusades and the scallop was so named the “shells of St. James.” The Christian association with scallops is why you will often see them as part of Christmas dinner in France – though you may not see the creamy preparation we are so familiar with.
That’s enough food trivia. The real task is to update this classic. My launching point is the weather. It is far too warm for a bowl of cream sauce and I wanted to lighten the overall dish while maintaining the luxurious elements that make Coquilles so wonderful. Instead letting my scallops swim in a pool of cream, I decided to grill them and let them wade in the shallow end. Second, I traded the mashed potatoes for a ramekin full of Potatoes Anna nestled on a pile of wilted spinach. I’m very fond of mushrooms with scallops and cream, so I grilled a few slices of portabello to finish the dish off.
The sauce is a basic white wine reduction finished with cream and is really open to adaptation. Start by sautéing a finely diced shallot and two cloves of garlic in a couple of tablespoons of butter. Once they’re soft, add a ½ cup of dry white wine to the pan and let it reduce by half. Add a ½ cup of cream and salt and pepper to taste. A little grated nutmeg is a nice touch and tarragon is a fantastic addition. Heat the sauce through and reduce until thickened a bit.
The scallops are beyond easy though susceptible to overcooking – be careful. I like mine dusted with a little salt and pepper and seared in a cast iron pan with about a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil. Make sure your oil is good and hot and that your scallops are dry before you put them in the pan. A large scallop will take about 2 minutes per side.
Potatoes Anna is just thinly sliced potatoes layered with butter and salt. I usually do mine in a cast iron pan, but I thought I’d give the ramekins a try this time just to get that nice little disc. Use russets or another high starch potato. Peel and slice them very thin – no more than a ¼ inch thick – this is a good time to pull out your mandolin. For two people, you’ll need one medium sized potato and about 4 teaspoons of melted butter. Butter the ramekin generously. Fill with potato slices, drizzling a little butter and salting between each layer. Bake in a 450 degree oven for about 45 minutes or until tender.
The spinach is pan sautéed in olive oil with a bit of garlic, salt and pepper.
So there you have it. A classic starter turned into an elegant dinner. It has all of the elements of the traditional Coquille St. Jacques but with an added depth flavour from the pan seared scallops and the roasted potatoes. I still love the old version, but I think if more restaurants offered up a modern variation, Coquilles St. Jacques could enjoy a renaissance of sorts.